Mad Max: Fury Road opens with a handful of expository voiceover lines spoken by the titular Max (Tom Hardy), goes on to show the “hero” eating a live lizard, then revs a car engine and goes. And for the next two hours writer/director George Miller doesn’t lay off the gas pedal as he lays waste to an already barren wasteland, and submits an audacious action film that rises far above anything the genre has produced in recent memory. It’s a simple narrative executed with a mesmerizing complexity that manages to transcend the genre while simultaneously delivering the visceral thrills commonly associated with action films.
Miller’s boldness is on display from the outset as he throws Max (and the audience) directly into a story he (we) has no familiarity with and lets him (us) sort things out as he (we) goes. Max is captured by the War Boys and used as a human blood bag for the terminally ill Nux (Nicholas Hoult), who, along with the other War Boys, has been called upon by King Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) to chase down and capture Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) after she attempts to escape with Joe’s specially selected breeding women, the Five Wives. The film gets its subtitle from the route Furiosa chooses to take, and the majority of the movie consists of one extended chase sequence after another along Fury Road. There are few quiet moments, but for the most part this is an action filmmaking turned to 11. You won’t see better, more detailed, or more expertly staged action sequences this year, or any other year, than the handful of extended examples here.
In lesser hands, Miller’s approach would lead to a mind-numbing, increasingly desensitized experience, but the clear passion for both the material and the carnage he throws onscreen is immediately evident and never relents. Traditionally, movies take the time to set up their story, characters, and themes, but Miller forgoes all of that in order to streamline the film and get to those meaty, jaw-dropping action set pieces that became the centerpiece of the movie’s wonderful marketing campaign. Those brainier elements are all eventually, and satisfactorily, addressed, but it’s a credit to the choreography and sheer ambition of the film’s early scenes that you never ask yourself “why do I care what’s happening right now?” By the end of its running time we’ve seen complete character arcs and immaculate world-building without ever having to slow down and use hackneyed “audience catch up” scenes where the characters stand around explaining what we’re supposed to have taken in to us. It’s joyous, invigorating, ballsy filmmaking – cinematic Viagra for a 70 year old director whose credits this century are limited to two Happy Feet films.
While Fury Road is first and foremost a canvas by which Miller paints his distinct brand of chaos, it also has quite a bit on its mind. There’s the obvious: the story is a fairly straightforward tale of rebellion and redemption, but the film feels more interested in what this rebellion means to this warped version of civilization as a whole. Portraying a world that looks and feels completely unlike our own, great lengths are taken to touch on a wide range of current real world issues. Environmentalism, the most obvious of which given the setting, is addressed, but in addition topics such as religion, feminism, and capitalism are all given some thought. It’s the stuff of great allegory – the idea that this desolate, bleak wilderness that resembles our own world in no discernable way is somehow plagued by the same complications. In an effort to highlight this Miller peppers the movie with constant dualities. It’s poetic, really – violent deaths are a given, the inevitable end game of constant warring between various factions. And yet, the film places an immense value on the preciousness individual life in an environment of nothingness where that life is the only thing you have. The basic structure of the piece underlines this point further, as Max, Furiosa, et al are metaphorically chased by certain death, where running and fighting to survive is their lone viable option. The structure also informs this duality. It’s an efficient action movie with seemingly no time for big ideas or character development…until it does have the time for those things. Even Max, who is both a Christ-like symbol and animalistic survivor, shows how everything in Miller’s world is constantly shifting between one state of being and another, contradictory state of being.
What might be most impressive about Fury Road is that in a summer climate overrun with remakes and reboots it fits in as part of that pack, but also feels wholly different and original. The film stands as the definitive example of how nostalgia can be used as inspiration to create something bold and new, as opposed to a marketing gimmick that results in a homogenized, lifeless film. The result is one of the best modern films to come along in some time. Mad Max: Fury Road is a special mixture of art and entertainment –a movie unpretentious enough to enjoy blowing everything it possibly can up, but with the wherewithal to ground itself in relevant ideas. Simply put: it’s an inspiration.